RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonata No. 1 in d minor, Op. 28; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 – Jin Hwa Lee, p. – Blue Griffin BGR327, 59:27 (6/10/15) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Recorded October-November 2013, these two Rachmaninov virtuoso works, each conceived on a large scale and in the same key, receive elegant treatment within the confines of a relatively modest program. The 1907 d minor Sonata appears to have been a direct response by the composer to the Faust legend and to the Liszt treatment in his Eine Faust-Symphonie. The initial “program” – later discarded – meant the three movements depicted Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles, as had Liszt. Rachmaninov made the keyboard part luxurious and highly ornamental, often inflamed, meant in part to challenge and celebrate the artistry of Konstantin Igumnov, who was to give the premier. Pianist Lee makes it clear that Russian bells, lyrical digressions, and Bach counterpoint at once suffuse the opening Allegro moderato, whose sonata form no less conveys broad and sweeping periods of improvisational materials.  Commentators assign the Sonata to the so-called “Dresden period” in the composer’s output, that includes his E Minor Symphony. The piling up of sonorities, especially in the latter pages of the first movement, well conforms to a “symphonic” concept of keyboard sound made of fifths, scales, and repeated notes.

Rocking triplets introduce the theme of the Lento movement, whose liquid filigree will remind many an auditor of the c minor Piano Concerto. The writing becomes monotonous or hypnotic, depending on one’s appreciation of repeated patterns of arpeggios and climbing scale patterns and pedal trills that build to a climax and then descend to a muted close. Hammered octaves, fortissimo et marcato, for the sprawling Allegro molto, move the music forward with the typical Rachmaninov flair, leading to a Schumann-like march that the composer asks to be played piu risoluto. The rushing, galloping chord progressions now liken themselves to large, heroic portions of the d minor Piano Concerto. That the tender filigree resembles aspects of the Moonlight Sonata and the Schumann C Major Fantasy is likely intentional. Lee evokes both plastic and pearly play from her keyboard, easily convincing us that the “Rach 3” would make an excellent vehicle for her potent gifts.

Violinist Fritz Kreisler – with whom Rachmaninov toured and recorded – introduced Rachaninov to the Portuguese melody known as “La Folia.” Rachmaninov well knew that Liszt had incorporated the tune into his Spanish Rhapsody. Rachmaninov devoted the year 1931 to his Corelli Variations, which became his last major solo keyboard work until his passing in 1943. Rachmaninov maintains the dark hue of D Minor throughout the twenty variations and coda, except for number 14-15, which gravitate to D-flat Major, the same key as his ubiquitous Variation 18 from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  The Variations of ten assume the complex grandeur of “transcendental etudes,” and Rachmaninov stipulated that lesser pianists could omit Nos. 11, 12, and 19. At Variation 14, Rachmaninov conceives an Intermezzo, featuring improvisatory cadenzas.  The music assumes a nocturnal sensibility, dolcissimo, prior to the overtly ostentatious virtuosity of the final five variations and climax that suddenly yields to a meditative coda.  Lee performs the Corelli Variations as a late Rosetta Stone for the Rachmaninov ethos, whose innate romanticism embraces Spanish, jazz, and Liszt elements. Variation 18 could be Rachmaninov’s direct answer to the Liszt Wilde Jagd Etude. Lee has preserved the Rachmnainov style with natural panache, and the Blue Griffin sonic values make the recital an aural treat on every level.

—Gary Lemco